The Farplants Group, number 138 on the Solent 250, is the largest wholesale supplier of outdoor plants to garden centres and garden centre chains in the UK. Sue Hughes met sales director Nick Richards
Located on the West Sussex coast near Arundel, The Farplants Group is a cooperative comprising five member nurseries: Binsted Nursery, Fleurie, Star Plants, Walberton Nursery and Yoder Toddington – each specialising in different ranges. From modest beginnings in 1972, with a vision to supply potted plants to garden centres as they boomed in popularity, the Group has diversified and now produces more than 11 million plants a year in 2,000 varieties on 170 acres of mixed facilities with a retail value of more than £50 million.
Technology has completely transformed how plants are propagated, grown, packaged (look out for QR codes on pots) and delivered, but not altered the need for sheer hard graft during seasonal early spring and summer peak times, when up to 500 staff are employed.
“Growing is totally technology driven now,“ explains Nick Richards, “but it is the weather that affects the market. The business has firm roots but we cannot control the peculiarities of the UK weather and getting end user customers to visit garden centres. That is the chief obstacle to growth this year, because we generate 80% of our turnover in four months. The first sunny weekend in March leads to crazy restocking, but in 30 years, the bad weather this year has led to our most difficult season ever.
“Last year was great, but we have a two-week display window for some plants and if people are not visiting garden centres, then stock is simply not selling, despite the grow-your-own boom and increased interest in plants such as runner beans, tomatoes, sweetcorn and courgettes.“
He remains optimistic: “We’re in a leisure sector which is more recession proof. The gardening sector is resilient and it’s a progressive hobby – you learn and get better as you gain experience over time.“ One area where he succumbs to pessimism though is serious concern about how many of his customers may go bust in the recession.
Innovation – such as newer, stronger and grafted plant varieties – marketing, quality and in-house plant breeding are core to Farplants’ success. Many of the best-selling plants sold in garden centres have their origins in Farplants’ own breeding programs. Two of the cooperative members undertake their own breeding and exciting new varieties are in the pipeline. Working closely with plant breeders and their agents worldwide ensures the Group’s ranges are up to date with the best new varieties, as well as tried and tested older ones.
“Expansion can occur at any time, not through the acquisition of another business, but by bringing into use existing spare land, tunnels and facilities such as greenhouses at the 12 sites belonging to the five cooperative members,“ Richards continues. “I’m also looking at new European markets which are less dependent on the UK weather and new products, because there is an international market in plant breeding with a constant stream of new products, particularly bedding plants. Sometimes we get an exclusive too.“
Digitalis ’Illumination Pink’ is only in its first year of sales at Walberton Nursery, an exclusive introduction for 2012, but won Chelsea’s RHS Plant of the Year 2012. A unanimous winner, the remaining plants of the 20,000 produced for this season were swiftly snapped up. Thompson & Morgan bred this variety, but Walberton Nursery and The Farplants Group have the exclusive right to grow and sell the product in a three-litre pot format.
In benchmarking terms, The Farplants Group is unique, growing a full range and being the largest supplier to 800-850 garden centres. Besides the labour intensive aspects of plant growing, it has a massive dispatch operation, employing 150 staff in peak season, and a formidable IT team to ensure every aspect of production runs seamlessly. Labels, displays and information bed boards are constantly updated, with most of the spectacular catalogues’ photography undertaken in-house.
The margin that funds the business is transfer price. Farplants budgets to break even or make a profit, setting nurseries’ production targets and pricing at the same time. It has an overdraft facility and credit terms in place for the garden centres it supplies.
With five separate nurseries, some aspects are quite different yet they also have much in common. Employees are well informed and the Group operates a pension scheme, open to staff after six months. Health and safety is a key regulatory issue and as some chemicals have been banned for ornamental use the Group has moved to greater biological pest control, integrated pest management and observes peat content regulations.
Richards is personally highly focused on developing alternative sources of income for the Group, but enjoys family downtime and travel – when he cannot resist investigating how overseas plants are grown. If he has a key message for the Government, it’s this: “Tackle tax avoidance properly, so people have more confidence to spend. That way more money would feed through the entire economy.”
The Farplants Group website